Big Picture: Little things that make a big difference in your operation

Automation is transforming distribution centers. But don’t overlook the little things that can have a big impact on your performance.

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Automation, technology and software promise new levels of efficiency and productivity along with the capability to execute complex order fulfillment strategies.That’s the good news. The bad news: just as a supply chain is only as efficient as its weakest link, a sophisticated materials handling system is only as efficient as the bottlenecks in a distribution center. A high-speed order fulfillment engine won’t hit its numbers if inventory doesn’t get off the receiving dock or orders can’t get through manual packing stations to meet shipping cut-off times.

As a result, these new systems are highlighting the big difference that little things can have on operations. Here are seven examples to consider for your facility.

1. Receiving, inspection and quality control with powered mobile workstations.
Receiving, storing and shipping full pallets is a relatively simple process. On the other hand, breaking down those pallets into smaller units of measure that must be inspected and labeled for shipment is labor intensive and prone to error.

That’s where powered mobile workstations can play a role. Mobility allows the associate to take the technology to wherever the work needs to be performed. Unlike traditional carts, however, a powered mobile workstation includes a mobile power source to run a laptop, thin client or industrial tablet; a bar code scanner; a thermal printer; an electronic scale or cubing device; or some other piece of equipment that might be used for quality control or inspection. “The No. 1 reason people invest in a powered mobile workstation is to cut down on or eliminate walking from the dock or picking area to get labels, purchase orders or other information they need to put on product coming in or going out the door,” says John O’Kelly, president of Newcastle Systems.

One e-tailer, for example, uses a powered mobile workstation to pick oversized products that ship in their storage packaging, such as 42-inch flat screen televisions. Order selectors use the bar code scanner on the cart to scan a location label on the rack to confirm that they are picking a Sony television rather than a Sanyo television. Associates then print and apply the shipping label from the cart before delivering the TVs to the shipping area. “Labeling at the point of picking streamlines the process and cuts down on errors,” says O’Kelly.

2. Capture cube and weight information now for packaging later.
Cubing and weighing equipment has long been used to capture the weight and dimensional information of incoming pallets and cartons to make the best use of storage locations.

With the increase in e-commerce, cubing and weighing systems are now being used to provide precise dimensions and weights of individual items that are unpackaged and may also be an unusual shape. That information allows a distributor to pick, cartonize and ship an order in the most economical way possible. “The information collected upfront is exported to a WMS or some other system that can be used to tell the order fulfillment person which carton to use to minimize shipping costs,” says Clark Skeen, president of CubiScan.” The information can also be used by the warehouse management system (WMS) to group picks together in a way that optimizes packing. Finally, it provides information for the new generation of on-demand packaging systems highlighted later in this article. Weight information, meanwhile, is used to check weigh orders for quality control purposes. 

Skeen says that most new customers begin by installing cubing and weighing equipment on a powered mobile workstation so they can weigh and cube items already in storage. Once that process is complete, the equipment is moved to the receiving area to dimension new items or confirm that existing items haven’t changed in weight, shape or packaging.

3. Integrate workstations with the materials handling system.
Despite the amount of time, money and planning invested in software, data collection technologies and automation, manual workstations in the packaging and value-added services areas are often an afterthought, says Jeff Dehnert, president of Dehnco. “Typically, system designers spend their time on software and equipment to pick with 100% accuracy and move an order at very fast speeds,” says Dehnert. “All of a sudden, all that automation has to integrate with a manual process involving an hourly wage employee who isn’t equipped with the right supplies or tools to keep up with the throughput of the system. The manual process becomes the bottleneck.”

It’s a little like a downhill skier hitting an unexpected patch of dirt: Everything comes to a sudden halt.

Dehnert argues that considering the requirements of the workstation in the early stages of a project can deliver a design that integrates with the flow of product through the building and reduces the number of touches and movements at the packing station.

“If we understand the step-by-step process at the outset, we can design in small, incremental savings in the packing process,” Dehnert says, adding that a well-designed workstation can deliver productivity improvements of 20% to 25% for that process. “Those improvements may not seem like much at one station, but when you multiply them by the 15 or 20 workstations that a typical big box retailer operates most of the year, it adds up.”

4. Lean out the labeling process.
As the volume of parcel shipping rises, so does the interest in systems to automatically insert a returns label, print and insert packing slips, and print and apply shipping labels.

The place to start, says Dan Hanrahan, president of Numina Group, isn’t with the print-and-apply system, but further upstream with the picking process. He urges customers to think of the pick, pack, validation and flow of an order as one continuous process that begins with picking and ends with a product going into a truck. “The first step used to be to buy a print-and-apply system,” says Hanrahan. “Now, we’re defining the whole pick-and-pack process. That allows us to take touches out and build repeatability into the process before it gets to the print-and-apply station.”

According to Hanrahan, there are several areas to be considered in that approach:

Centralize packing and labeling: If processes can be centralized, then the area can be laid out in an ergonomic way that minimizes walking and maximizes the workflows to the packer even without automation.

Rationalize carton sizes: Instead of 13 or 14 different carton sizes, see if you can fill most of your orders with just six different sizes.

Assess your void: Make sure void fill and packing documentation is located within easy reach. “If you’re packing more than 500 cartons a day, you may be a candidate for an automated system for inserting packing slips,” Hanrahan says.

Create an assembly line in packing: Instead of one packer performing all the steps in the process, consider putting cartons on gravity flow conveyor and perform a different step at each station.

By leaning out the processes before the print-and-apply station, product will flow more efficiently.

5. Optimize and automate the packaging process.
The conventional way to package individual and less-than-carton quantities of items is to keep an inventory of different sized boxes and void fill to accommodate the many different sized orders that may be shipped. The result is that customers are often shipping too much packaging for an order and paying for more of the cube of a trailer or shipping container than they really need.

“People squeeze every second of the cycle time from the processes inside their buildings,” says Hanko Kiessner, CEO of Packsize International. “But when the product leaves the building, they lose more in excess shipping costs than they saved inside the building.”
Instead, a new generation of machinery has come to market that makes the right size shipping container for each order—and does it on-demand. These systems combine information about the items being picked from the WMS with the dimensional and weight information collected by weighing and cubing systems to determine the best size box that fits each order. The machines then make the box at the time the order is being picked.

In the most efficient operations, the order is picked directly to the on demand box rather than into a tote to be packaged later. “You’re using about 30% less cardboard on average in each box,” says Tom Coyne CEO of System Logistics.

The new on-demand box making systems are designed for high-volume environments. System Logistics machines are capable of making 3,000 boxes per line in an eight-hour shift; a system from Sealed Air is capable of making 5,500 boxes on a single line per shift. Both System Logistics and Sealed Air provide fully automated solutions that integrate with a materials handling system.

Along with a new approach to packaging, these systems are also sold in a variety of ways.

Packsize, for instance, does not charge upfront for its machinery. Rather, it provides the corrugated that works with its machinery.
Similarly, Sealed Air does not charge upfront for its equipment either, other than an installation fee. Nor does it charge for the materials used in the machine. Instead, it charges a transaction fee for each box made by the machine.

System Logistics, on the other hand, offers a conventional sales model, where the customer buys the machine and works with any corrugated supplier. 

“The growth of e-commerce is driving the need for these solutions,” says Don Liebel, business engineer for Sealed Air. “People have automated how they pick and sort their products. The pack station has always been a neglected area.”

6. Don’t overlook the dock.
Walt Swietlik, director of field support for Rite-Hite Products, tells a story about a customer that outfitted all of its lift trucks with attachments that could load two 48-inch pallets side by side into a trailer at one time. The idea was to drastically speed up the loading process. The only problem: No one realized that two side-by-side pallets wouldn’t fit through the dock doors. “The loading dock is the last frontier for efficiency,“ says Swietlik. “A lot of consultants have looked at the efficiencies they can gain inside the box. But the main artery in and out of a facility is the dock doors and they are an afterthought to the design of most facilities.”

Too often, he adds, docks are too high for today’s trailers. Dock doors aren’t wide enough for today’s loads. And, dock plates are often the wrong size and capacity for what the client wants to run over them. “In those instances, the dock becomes like a clogged artery,” Swietlik says. “When a truck comes in, it has to be loaded or unloaded by hand and productivity goes down the tube.”

The solution, he adds, is relatively simple. Before leasing a building or implementing new processes, have a discussion with someone who specializes in dock equipment to make sure the right equipment is in place to work with the distribution and shipping procedures. “The dock is part of an overall system,” Swietlik says. “If you’re maximizing the cube on a pallet and you want to maximize the cube in a trailer, that cube better roll through the doors efficiently.”

7.Automation doesn’t stop at the dock door.
Loading or unloading floor-loaded containers and trailers is typically done in one of two ways. Cartons are manually loaded onto a pallet that is then removed by a pallet jack or lift truck. Or the cartons are loaded onto an extendable conveyor that reaches into the trailer. In the second example, an associate often has to reach over his head or stand on a step stool to get to the cartons at the top of the stack. Both approaches are hard work and neither is very ergonomic.

Semi-automated and automated solutions for loading and unloading cartons can now extend the reach of automated materials handling systems right into the trailer.

The first approach involves attaching a powered platform to a flexible roller conveyor or extendable belt conveyor. The platform’s controls allow an associate to position it at an ergonomic height and slide a carton from the conveyor into position in the stack. “One liquor distributor in Ontario was loading 575 cases an hour with two people in the trailer using just a flexible roller conveyor,” says Richard Kat, vice president of sales and marketing for Engineered Lifting Systems. “By adding the powered platform to the conveyor, one operator can now load 650 cases per hour and the operators aren’t as tired at the end of the shift.” The reason is that the associate can slide the cases into position rather than lift them.

At the same time, robots are now being deployed to automatically load and unload cartons from trailers and shipping containers. The technology is already being used by a leading CPG manufacturer, according to Joe O’Connor, director of marketing for Wynright. “One robot can work two containers,” O’Connor says. And while the solution still requires an associate on the dock to oversee the robots, typically one associate can monitor three robots. 

Companies mentioned in this article
Engineered Lifting Systems:
Newcastle Systems:
Numina Group:
Packsize International:
Rite-Hite Products:
Sealed Air:
System Logistics:

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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